by Heather Parish
“But how does a man turn into a cow?” asks the student.
“Gradually” is the answer.
The Salesman mines its themes in Iranian literature and American drama, but something about its portrayal of the delicate anxiety of a relationship in the face of violence is uniquely its own. The film’s leading actors—Shahab Hosseini (Emad) and Taraneh Alidoosti (Rana)—methodically unveil their characters’ strengths and weaknesses like flowers just at the point of wilting. Director Asghar Farhadi painstakingly crafts the film so that every piece fits perfectly, from the inside out.
The story of Emad and Rana, a literature teacher and his wife, opens with scenes from an amateur theater production of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, in which the couple are starring. Immediately after, however, the foundation of their relationship experiences its first cracks—literally. The building in which they live is compromised by construction next door and the walls start cracking, gas pipes breaking. It has to be evacuated.
When they move into a new place, thanks to the help of another thespian, the property of the previous tenant, an ostensibly promiscuous woman, remains frustratingly in the way. But they jumble their lives in with her stuff and move forward to make the most of it.
However, when Rana is left home alone expecting her husband’s arrival and she mistakenly buzzes in a stranger before hopping into a shower, the real catastrophe happens. Rana is mysteriously assaulted and her assailant manages to make off without being identified. He does, however, leave behind a few clues. A set of car keys to a truck left outside. A cell phone, now dead. A wad of cash.
While this sets up a classic suspense-thriller in most Hollywood terms, The Salesman doesn’t take the most straightforward approaches to suspense. If suspense is the realization that something is not right with the world around you, and the chase to make it right, The Salesman dramatizes a much more internal shift. After the assault, Emad goes through the motions of a suspense film, putting together clues to track down his wife’s assailant. But the real suspense of the film occurs between Emad and Rana.
And that’s where the real anxiety of the film exists. As Emad, who believes himself to be an enlightened, progressive man, devolves into a patriarchal bully, Rana climbs her way out of the depths of her trauma to quietly make a stand. As Willy Loman slowly became a much smaller man over the course of Death of a Salesman, Linda Loman paid off the house. As the man in Gholem-Hossein Sa’edi’s The Cow devolved, so did Emad, until there’s nothing left but a brute.
As a filmmaker, Farhadi’s style is probably very accessible to American audiences unfamiliar with foreign films. He is meticulous in his storytelling and his style is incredibly naturalistic. But anyone hoping for a Hitchcockian thriller might temper their expectations on this one. The Salesman excels at the tension that can lurk beneath the surface of unequal relationships between men and women, and it is food for thought on a number of levels.
If you’re entertained by a thoughtful, deeply motivated morality tale of a marriage and some excellent performances, consider giving The Salesman the time it deserves. The Salesman won the 2017 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Fresno Filmworks’ next independent film presentation is a documentary about the life, work, and influence of jazz icon John Coltrane at 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Friday, May 12, at the Tower Theatre in Fresno. Find out more about Fresno Filmworks on their website.